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Okonjo-Iweala spits fire…At Customs annual conference

Posted by By ALEX AKAO, Jos on 2005/12/19 | Views: 1031 |

Okonjo-Iweala spits fire…At Customs annual conference


Jos, the capital of Plateau State recently played host to the nation’s maritime community who joined the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) for this year’s Comptroller-General’s annual conference.

Jos, the capital of Plateau State recently played host to the nation’s maritime community who joined the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) for this year’s Comptroller-General’s annual conference.


Beginning from Monday, the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) Kuru, main venue of the event and other vantage locations within the Jos metropolis were kept busy with sundry activities (both academic and socials) such as lectures, partying, speech making, awards, cultural displays – culminating in the retrospective appraisals of the Customs activities in the past 12 months.


On hand to grace the events at different stages were dignitaries from the international community such as the World Customs Organisation (WCO), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations Council on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as well as representatives of the Customs formations in neighbouring Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana.


On the Nigerian scene, were distinguished legislators, past leaders of the Customs such as Retired General Sam Ango and Alhaji Shehu Musa (Makaman Nupe), the Army and Naval Service chiefs, retired General Joshua Dongonyaro, royal father – the Gbon Gwom Jos, not to mention the state’s Chief Executive, Joshua Dariye who played the chief host.


Conspicuously absent was President Olusegun Obasanjo who was represented by a Special Adviser, Alhaji Abdulkadir Mamman. Also not seen at the opening ceremony of the event was the Finance Minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who was scheduled to chair the occasion but was absent in view of other pressing issues of national concern.


If the audience, Customs men and the press in particular, who were anxious to have some clarifications from the minister as to government’s position on certain contending issues at the ports (Customs reforms, concessioning and the attendant job losses, the imminence of Destination Inspection from January next year and the advent of Crown Agents, to mention a few) were disappointed, it was not to be for long.


Thursday, at about 10.30am, the participants once again gathered at the prestigious NIPSS auditorium for the beginning of Day-4 lectures. No sooner was the first paper presentation ended than sirens blared to announce the arrival of Dr Okonjo-Iweala. Briskly, the minister was ushered in, clad in her routine all-Ankara traditional wears.


It all began with a welcome note from the Comptroller-General of Customs, Elder Jacob Gyang Buba before the minister took over the microphone to deliver her well calculated punches, first at the Customs and then the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), whose representative, Mallam Abdulsalam Mohammed, General Manager, Lagos Ports, had departed the previous day.


The first indication of trouble emerged when “Madam” rejected the podium because “it is too high, and you know that I am short. So, I will move around and around so that you can hear my frank talk in this our family meeting.”


Common External Tariff
I salute the Nigerian Customs Service in the choice of the theme of this year’s conference which is centered on: Common External Tariff: Implications for the Nigerian Economy. It is no doubt a timely topic. It was not long that I on behalf of the Government announced the commencement of the tariff regime that cut across the Economic Community of West African States, Sub-region. Since however there may be those who may not see the wisdom in such a tariff regime, it is imperative to spell out some of its advantages.


The CET will ensue that there is transparency in revenue collection, integration of the informal sector and above all, it is a concrete evidence of economic integration of the region. Other benefits include the opening of the markets, wealth creation through provision of jobs. All these indices constitute a structure that will ensure peace and stability, economic growth and overall development of the region.


In this country, it is a well known fact that we often have good policies but the problems have often come at the implementation stages. Let me say this will be different. We are tired of entertaining and granting waivers (on imports) and it will enhance our regional (trade) integration and present a level playing ground. Some sectors, domestically are suffering because of unfair competition with foreign goods.


Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN)
Let them know this is their baby. We know they will not see anything good about CET. But it does not matter. If only they know that the Tariff Regime is a win, win for them and importers. We have had enough of ban, ban, ban on goods. They (manufacturers) have been very selfish in calling for ban on this and that. They sneak to “Baba” and tell him this and that is not good for local manufacturers, and Mr President will say ok, ban it. Only to discover something else later. We are getting away from that through external restraint, and the CET is it.


Customs reforms vis-ŕ-vis corruption
The reforms are aimed at strengthening the Nigeria Customs Service. It is about making Customs stronger and better. They are not a threat to anyone. Or is there anyone here who believes Customs is okay as it is? (No response). The Customs have been underfunded in the past, we know it. But the high level of corruption in the service is not helping matters.


This has been a systemic corruption in the service. A systemic corruption because those involved do not even believe it is corruption, but see it as “business as usual.” If we deny it (corruption), we are just kidding ourselves. There are a number of honest officers, though, who want to do their job, but the systemic nature of corruption is holding them down. The (Comptroller-General) is often saying “yes, others are corrupt too.” That is why government is reforming the other areas like the NPA.


When we talk about Crown Agents coming to assist Customs, people say it is their pay off because they helped government to negotiate debt relief. It is absolute nonsense! It is sad that people see it as neocolonisation. The President is merely tapping from the knowledge of global CEO of business moguls. Nobody is coming to take over your jobs. We know there are so many of you here (Customs) who hate to hear this advice, but why are they threatened.


The CG has said, both verbally and in writing, that he welcomes the reforms, who then is holding him back? Let me say that we have handled harder reforms than Customs and we are unshakeable. Those who are opposed to it let them continue to send their cronies to Aso Rock. But they will get nowhere. Such lobbyists are just wasting their resources. There has been too many sponsored articles against the reforms. Those concerned should continue to waste their resources.


Minister Versus Comptroller-General
CG: The Nigeria Customs Service is not against reforms. We know we will do better with reforms. I have often said it that the current management of the NCS is a product of reforms, but … (minister cuts in).


Minister: Why then have we not been working together on this? Why do we have the minister going this way, the CG going that way, the DCGs (Deputy Comptroller Generals) going another way? Why have we not been walking hand-in-hand to tell “Baba” that we all are ready for it?
CG: But this management is also a product of reforms …


Minister: I hope then that your definition of “Reform” and mine are the same (laughter).
CG: All we are saying is that all other agencies operating at the ports, should also be reformed. NPA, shipping companies, banks, licensed agents, everybody … because we all operate together and so must cooperate to be reformed. We have recently dismissed over 50 officers due to bad reports. We are appealing to all those going to tell the honourable minister to also provide evidences and see if we will not deal with them decisively. People should not just go to the minister or “Baba” and level allegations …
Minister: We do have cases of corruption with backed-up evidences. I will say it again that corruption problem in Customs is a systemic one. We will start by dealing with the process in the system. There are cases that come to me, we will bring the evidences someday, it necessary, but for now, let us face the systemic corruption.


On NPA (Nigeria Ports Authority)
The case of NPA is an unsavory one. It is sad indeed. I have seen their several pages of paid responses to my statement about them in newspapers and magazines. It is too sad that they are even wasting more money on such self defence. What they are doing does not add any iota of value to the system. They can delay, you can lobby, but you can’t stop it. Let them continue to plant articles and stories in newspapers about me, I am not bothered.


They are just accusing the World Bank wrongly. The World Bank is not in any way dictating our policy in this respect. Or is it because I worked there …? What you are doing by taking advert pages and planting articles amount to wasting public resources to block the public’s interest. It is not fair. People should be careful what they do with public funds.


Nigeria is a large country, but Nigeria is small at the same time. Let them continue to scamper around for safety, because we told them the truth. But they should stop using public funds to block public interest.

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.